UBC’s Open Water Research Station, a one-of-a-kind facility along the shores of Port Moody, was created in an effort to save Steller sea lions.
“They’re declining in Alaska, they are an endangered species and animals like Yasha hold the key – we think – to solving that mystery,” Dr. Andrew Trites, of UBC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit, said as he stood beside a sea lion.
Researchers weren’t getting all the answers they needed in the wild nor with captive animals so the facility’s open-water concept seemed to be a perfect compromise.
Since it opened 13 years ago, researchers have learned that part of the problem in Alaska is that the fatty fish sea lions normally eat are being replaced by leaner fish, a problem for weaning pups that need to put on a lot of weight fast.
“So it stays with its mother for an extra one or two years because she can take low-cal food and make energy-rich milkshakes, which means that she’s going to have a pup once every two to three years,” Trites said.
Researchers from all over the world come to the centre to learn about things like how deep and long Steller sea lions can dive and how much energy they have to expend to do it.
The facility has been funded by the U.S. government until now.
“Unfortunately, this year the money didn’t come through,” Trites said. “We are not finished with research.”
Without new funding, the research facility will have to close down in six months.
As for the Canadian government, marine research hasn’t appeared to be a priority for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) for a long time but Trites hopes that is changing.
He said DFO has allocated more funding for research and “they’re still in the process of identifying how money is going to be spent.”
– With files from Linda Aylesworth